SportVU has changed the way we measure basketball performance. BallinEurope’s Emmet Ryan spoke with the man leading the technology’s charge, Brian Kopp, to find out how its all-seeing eyes are changing basketball.

Statistics and performance analysis are nothing new to team sports. The long-standing problem for analysts has been breaking down individual performances with relatively limited data sets. To paraphrase Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy, anaylsts try to picture clusters of information as they move through the computer. What do they look like? Shots? Tackles? The performance analyst community kept dreaming of a world they thought they’d never see. And then, one day, SportVU arrived.

The technology, now owned by Stats Inc in the US, was developed by former members of the Israeli Defence Forces for soccer. Basketball however has been the sport where the visual technology has come to the fore.

The SportVU team installs computer vision cameras in arenas and stadia. The current NBA season was the first time an entire league agreed to have the system set up. Six cameras are installed in the rafters of each arena in the ceiling. The system tracks the x-y co-ordinates of the players and the x-y-z co-ordinates of the ball 25 times per second. The cameras capture video and data. Algorithms in the software tell the cameras what to track and what not to track. From there SportVU creates new data algorithms and analysis to turn that raw co-ordinate data into usable information for teams.

“We can enhance data they’re already using,” said Brian Kopp, vice president of sports solutions with Stats.

Before if a player won a rebound off a missed shot, teams couldn’t differentiate based on context. SportVU is changing that. “Now we can tell you, if there were a lot of people around, was the rebound in traffic or was it uncontested, how much ground did you cover to get that rebound, how many chances could you have had at rebounds versus how many you came away with, a lot more context around rebounding,” said Kopp.

“Another example for that category is passing. Right now assists only counts the successful passes that led to a successful basket. Now we capture every single pass, even those that you missed the shot or the pass that led to the pass that led to the basket. Teams can get a lot more context around passing the ball around versus the tally mark of just the successful assist.”

SportVU is also tabulating data that has never existed before and wouldn’t be available without the system. Complicated location based information such as spacing, judging where a player was on particular plays and their consistency in being in the right place, or speed, working out how quickly a player tracks back to defend, is giving teams a new insight into performance.

Up until now SportVU has been primarily a reactive technology, telling teams and athletes what happened rather than what is going to happen. Now, with all 30 NBA teams using the technology, it’s going to help them see the future.

“The only thing that had been holding back the predictive part was having enough data. We started several years ago, we were doing this team by team and so we started with four teams and then we grew to 10 and then 15 last season. Getting a deal with the NBA to cover every game allows you to be more predictive with the data now because even with half the teams, that’s a good set of data but you still don’t have everything so I think the predictive elements will get even stronger as time goes on and you have more data to pull from,” said Kopp.

The top performer of SportVU’s analysis has, unsurprisingly, been the biggest star in the game today. The system’s cameras are designed to find the optimal position and movement for a player on each play. LeBron James has forced SportVU to redefine optimal. “One of the things that we see when we look through this data is that it does highlight the players that are really good. LeBron is just off the charts in a number of things,” said Kopp.
Even with big name however the technology is able to spit out surprises. The current NBA most valuable player, Kevin Durant, and two-time Olympic champion Carmelo Anthony delivered results that surprised fans and analysts alike.

“One of the things we track is the percentage of rebounds that you get when you’re near a rebound, we call that the rebound opportunity percentage, how many times when you’re near a rebound do you come away with it and the leader the last few years has been Kevin Durant. Even though he’s not the leader in total rebounds, when he’s near the ball, he comes away with it,” said Kopp.

“Another stat we have is the field goal percentage off of your passes. We’re able to now say, how well do your teammates shoot which kind of a proxy for how good are the shots that you’re getting for them. Among the leaders in the last couple of years has been Carmelo Anthony which surprises people because he’s not known as a passer. He doesn’t do it as much as maybe he should but when he does do it, his teammates are able to convert,” he said.

“So those are things that in weird and unique ways you highlight how great some of these great players are but then we’re also able to uncover the players that are good at things you weren’t able to measure before: the players that are always in the right position, the players that have an impact on the defensive side even if they’re not showing up in blocks or steals. When you get to the predictive element, the nice thing about what we’re doing is that we see definite coaching aspects, things that you can use game to game for game strategy but more importantly the front office, personnel, what kind of players should I go acquire, how should I value these players? It’s going to impact that as well so the same information should be able to help the coaches and then the front office executives in the decisions they’re making, just used in different ways.”

The sheer number of professional basketball teams worldwide and the massive popularity of US college basketball leagues means Stats has plenty of opportunities to expand its market in the sport beyond the NBA. Discussions have already taken place between the company and Euroleague, basketball’s answer to the Champions League, and FIBA, the governing body of the sport worldwide. Last season the firm installed SportVU at some college arenas in the US.

“We started working with a couple of college teams last year. Duke, Louisville and Marquette were the three we started with, having a lot of discussions with other colleges for the upcoming year. College in the US is definitely a market that we’re going to be going after and again the nice thing is that all of the analysis that we do applies from the NBA down to college. It’s just a matter of making it work for their team or for their game,” said Kopp.
“Internationally, we’ve had discussions with the Euroleague, with FIBA, with some of the major international clubs like a couple in the Spanish league so there’s definitely opportunities there. When you’re going team by team, you only have data from your home games, you don’t have it when you go on the road because it’s not a portable system. That’s why the NBA is so great that we got it all this year, it took us a couple of years to get to the point of getting the NBA on board. For us if we’re able to do events for FIBA. I certainly think there are opportunities, it’s just a matter of finding the right time and finding the right relationship that allow us to get started.”

The next sport in SportVU’s sights is ice hockey. With many NBA teams sharing arenas with NHL sides, it’s a natural fit for expansion. “With hockey, to me it’s an interesting combination of basketball and soccer in the sense of the technology itself will be much more similar to basketball. To set up the cameras, how we track the players, even how we track the puck, there’s going to be a lot of similarities. I think the output of how you use it is going to be more similar to soccer,” said Kopp.

“By that I mean, in a sport like hockey, heat maps and location data and where you spend your time is a lot more relevant than in a sport like basketball so I think the output is going to be more like a hybrid of the two. That is something we’re working on, we’re talking to the NHL. It’s still early days so we’re hopeful that that’s something that we’ll be able to do but it’s still a bit early to predict where that’s going to go,” he said.

Stats have tried expanding the technology into other sports. Attempts to work with the NFL have so far failed, with negotiations over what the gridiron giant would pay for the service being a sticking point according to Kopp. Despite the business looking to expand its reach, don’t expect to see SportVU installed in Croke Park or Semple Stadium any time soon, as Stats is taking a staggered approach to the roll out.

“I think between basketball, hockey and what we’re doing with soccer, we’ve got our hands full. The nice about what we’re doing with the NBA, applying to college, applying to international basketball, you could just do basketball and busy for the next five years but hopefully, we’ll be doing more than that,” said Kopp.

Much as the technology is helping teams and players right now, Kopp said he wants the fans to benefit from this new form of analytics.

“The great thing about our deal with the NBA is if you go to their website, a lot of our data is out in the public domain. We’re going to continue with the NBA to grow what’s accessible to people at home. You’re going to see more and more of it being accessible by media outlets,” said Kopp.

“Our collective goal between Stats and the NBA is to have this kind of data just be part of the language of basketball so anywhere you’re talking about basketball, no matter who you are, you’re able to have access to the stats and information to be talking about it,” he said.

“There are silly things like who is the fastest player, things that probably from an analytical standpoint don’t knock anybody over but for the consumer is kind of fun to see. I think you’re going to see more and more of the data out for people to enjoy because at this point it’s kind of been behind closed doors and leaked out a little bit. We’d like to blow that open and have more access to it, it’s just a matter of working that out with the NBA and making sure that everybody is comfortable with how we do that.”

This article first appeared in the Sunday Business Post‘s Connected magazine.

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